Monday, November 26, 2012

The Next Big Thing – Blog Tag

Writer Teresa Frohock (author of MISERERE, tagged me in “The Next Big Thing – Blog Tag.”  She answered ten questions about her work in progress, and now I’m answering the same ten questions about my book.  I’ve tagged a few of my writer friends – check out what they are working on, too!

What is the working title of your book?
The title of my book is SO PRETTY.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
This was originally a short story that won third place in a science fiction contest for Writers’ Journal magazine.  The idea came to me when I saw a family once in the park.  The mother was a full figured lady wearing short shorts, bright colors, and several unrelated floral and animal prints.  Her hair was in a high ponytail on the side of her head, and she had tucked a big flower behind her ear.  What struck me about this woman was that she really seemed to be confident about her body and obviously enjoyed how she looked.  She had one daughter who looked and dressed just like her, but standing off to the side was another girl.  This girl was thin and pretty and wore tailored, monochromatic clothing.  I’m not sure if the other girl was her daughter or not, but it made me wonder – what if she was?  That, combined with my son’s experience of being the only male member of the high school cheer squad (he was the mascot for two years), fused the idea for this book in my head.

What genre does your book fall under?
My book is science fiction for young adults.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’d love to see someone like Jennifer Lawrence play the main character, Starr Valentine.  For two of my male main characters, I’d like to aim big and suggest either Taylor Lautner or Josh Hutcheson for Julian, and Hunter Parrish for Adrian.

What is the one sentence synopsis for your book?
Beautiful and popular, Starr Valentine has a perfect life; until she finds out her parents are from another planet with a very different standard of beauty and she has to learn to live in a place where she is no longer pretty.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I am represented by Marlene Stringer of The Stringer Literary Agency.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I wrote SO PRETTY in about ten weeks.

What other books would your compare this story to within your genre?
SO PRETTY isn’t dark or scary.  There are no vampires or werewolves.  It’s light and funny and addresses the question of beauty and our own perceptions about beauty.   I realize these aren’t books, but my character Starr does remind me a bit of Cher from the movie Clueless and Elle from Legally Blonde.  Just imagine Cher or Elle trapped on another planet where no one thinks they are pretty -  very traumatic.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
While I lived abroad, I learned that the ideal of feminine beauty was very different in different places.  In one country, the woman all struggled to be pale, while in another country having light colored eyes was important.  My friend who lived in Africa told me that where she lived it was said a bride should have a bottom “as big as the wedding table.”  I wrote SO PRETTY so that girls could understand that the idea of beauty is not something that can be put into one narrow definition.  I think there is so much pressure on teenaged girls today regarding how they should look, and I want girls to ignore this and find their own beauty.

What else about this book might pique the reader’s interest?
SO PRETTY is funny and light, and yet it holds a serious message.  How can a person who has defined themselves by their beauty go on when they are no longer beautiful?  Starr had to lose her beauty to find herself, and in doing so became a better and happier person.  She also defeated bad guys with some killer cheer leader moves, saved her family, and preserved the political stability of her entire planet.  Not bad for a prom queen from Ohio.


Tag – you are “it” to:
Kate Studer (
Beth Orsoff (
Kristy Baxter (

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Here's another ghost story for October.  I wrote this a few years ago, and it won an Honorable Mention in a contest for Writers' Journal Magazine.  The contest required the story begin with the prompt, "Hey, what are you...".  This story grew from that prompt.

My friends in Beaver will probably recognize the town in this story, including the gazebo, the river, and the bakery (I was thinking of Kretchmar's - yum!).  Nutsy Bob was also a real person, or at least that was what my Nunny called him.  I can remember sitting on her front porch on warm summer evenings in Beaver Falls when I was very small.  She'd see him walking down the street, roll her eyes and say, "Oh, great.  Here comes Nutsy Bob." I didn't realize that wasn't his actual name until I was nearly eight years old. She had a name for everyone in the neighborhood, and most of them were hilarious.

I strongly encourage anyone interested in writing to enter contests, and also to stretch their writing skills by attempting things outside of their own chosen genre.  Any practice is good practice, and the results may surprise you!

Red Sky

            “Hey, what are you doing here?” I asked the little girl standing next to me on the doorstep.

            “I think you know, Maggie,” she answered in a singsong voice, a small smile playing on the corners of her lips.  Her eyes, as blue as the sky on a cloudless summer day, were focused on the horizon as if she could see the sun about to rise.  “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.  Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.”        

“Lucy, what are you trying to tell me?” I asked, kneeling down so that my dark head was level with her small blonde one.

            “I’m not trying to tell you anything,” she said, her voice completely devoid of emotion.  “I’m trying to warn you.”

            I reached out to touch her, but before my hand could make contact with her skin, she disappeared, like fog evaporating in the morning light.  I sighed, sitting down on the damp cement.  The cold entered my body through my thin running pants, but I didn’t get up.  I rubbed my face with my hands, wishing I could begin this day again.  Seeing the ghost of my dead little sister before I’d even had my morning coffee was not a good start.

            I looked up and watched a bright fuchsia color stain the eastern sky as the sun slowly began its ascent.  It had been nearly twenty years since Lucy had died, but I still couldn’t seem to move on with my life.

My parents had forgiven me long ago.  They blamed themselves for allowing a teenager to watch an eight year old on the crowded shores of a lake.  Grief had eventually made them hate each other, but not me.  It made me feel even worse, because I knew the truth.  I was to blame.

“Are you going to sit there all day or are we going to run?” asked my best friend, Christie, taking me out of my reverie.  Her pale hair was pulled into a tight ponytail, and she jogged in place as she waited for me.  I stood up and joined her, the cold moisture from the step still clinging to my skin. 

We ran slowly through the town, down tree-lined streets and past rows of elegant Victorian houses.  My thoughts were still on Lucy, but soon the rhythmic sound of our feet hitting the pavement calmed me.  People were just beginning to wake up, and several called out a greeting to us as we passed.  We were fixtures in this place, as regular as clockwork.  Christie and I had lived here our whole lives, except for brief attempts to live in the city right after college.  We were known here, and we were as much a part of this town as the river that ran along its border.  We couldn’t escape it, and, at this point, we really didn’t want to.

We stopped, as we always did, at the bakery for coffee and a donut, completely negating the efforts of our run.  As we walked back, warm coffees clutched in our hands and the sugary feel of the donuts still on our tongues, we saw Nutsy Bob out walking his dog, Clementine.

Nutsy Bob was another fixture in our town, like the bell over the courthouse or the gazebo in the park.  Something had happened to him during the war, and he wasn’t quite right in the head, but he was harmless and sweet.  Clementine, on the other hand, was another story.  She was a nasty little Yorkie who liked to chomp on my ankles whenever she had a chance.

Nutsy greeted us as he always did.  “Howdy do, howdy do,” he said, a giant smile plastered on his face and a completely vacant look in his eyes.  His dark hair was slicked back with some sort of cream and his black, horn-rimmed glasses were wider than his face.  He wore a plaid shirt, impeccably ironed, as always, and jeans that had been ironed as well.  I looked down at my wrinkled and stained t-shirt.  I hadn’t come close to an iron in years.

Clementine snarled and moved to attack me.  I jumped away, nearly tripping on her leash.  I heard Christie smother a giggle and I glared at her.  Nutsy Bob reached down to soothe the irate little dog.

“It’s okay, Miss Clementine,” he murmured, and the vicious demon dog licked his hand lovingly.  I moved to apologize, but the dog immediately started to growl so I backed off.

“That dog really hates you,” said Christie, taking a sip of her coffee as we walked away.  I could hear the smile in her voice.  She was enjoying this too much.

“The feeling is mutual, trust me,” I said.  “She almost got my ankle this time. Maybe that was what the warning was about.”

“What warning?” asked Christie.

“It was nothing,” I said, feeling my cheeks get hot.  Christie stopped in her tracks, her eyes huge in her face.

“It was Lucy again, wasn’t it?” she asked.  I didn’t say anything and she groaned.  “Maggie, you have to start taking this seriously.  You need to talk to someone.”

“If I tell anyone, they’ll think I’m crazy,” I said, “and they would probably be right.”

“You aren’t crazy, Maggie,” Christie said softly.  “We have to figure this out.  Every time she has come to you, it’s been for a reason.”

“I know,” I said, throwing my empty coffee cup into a garbage can.  I pictured Lucy’s face from this morning, her sweet little eight-year-old face, and sighed.  “I don’t know why she would try to help me.  I don’t deserve it.”

Christie touched my arm, but didn’t say anything.  She knew how I felt.  Two minutes of distraction and selfishness had cost the life of my sister and my family as well.  The last words I’d said to Lucy were to tell her to stop bugging me so that I could hang out with my friends.  I wasn’t paying attention when she waded into the lake, leaving her little pink bucket in the sand, and, because of me, she’d died.

I walked Christie to her house, and tried to ignore the look of concern on her face as I waved goodbye.  I shoved my hands in the pockets of my jacket and walked aimlessly, not realizing where my feet were taking me until I reached the banks of the river.  I sank down onto a wooden bench and watched the dark, muddy water flow past me.  The river, swollen because of recent rain, looked powerful and threatening.  Usually this was my favorite place to relax, but somehow the force and speed of the water made me anxious today and unsettled.  I got up to leave, just as a dark cloud covered up the sun and the morning suddenly felt like the edge of night. 

I shivered.  A prickly sensation on the back of my neck made me think someone was watching me, but no one was near.  It looked like it was about to rain, and sensible people were safe inside their houses, not out wandering next to dangerously high rivers.  I shook my head, getting annoyed with myself, and decided to be sensible as well.  I took one last glance at the river as I left, and that is when I saw it. 

Something was in the river.  At first I thought it was a log, but then I realized it was a person, clinging to a fallen tree in the water and waving feebly.  I ran down to the side of the river, and saw Nutsy Bob, holding Clementine and trying to keep her head above water.  She looked like a bedraggled rat and he didn’t look much better.  I could tell he didn’t have much time.  His face was pale and gray and he seemed to be losing his grip. 

I dug into my pocket for my cell phone, calling for help as I grabbed a long tree branch that had washed ashore and waded into the river as far as I dared.  The icy water pounded against my legs, and the thick mud pulled at my shoes, making each step difficult.  After a few terrifying moments, I got the branch out far enough that Nutsy could reach it and pulled him slowly to shore.  Clementine, shivering in his arms, growled at me halfheartedly as the skies opened and it began to rain.

The ambulance and firemen arrived moments later and put Nutsy on a stretcher. “He must have slipped off the path and fallen in,” said one of the paramedics, wrapping a blanket around my shoulders.  “It’s a good thing you were here.”

Nutsy was mumbling something through chattering teeth, and when I leaned down to hear him, his words made my heart stop in my chest.  “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” he said, over and over again as they wheeled him slowly away.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Writing Lessons - Part One

As I prepare to teach another summer session at the Young Writers' Institute, I find myself thinking about the process of writing and what I have learned - and how I have learned it.  I'm posting this for all of my writer friends out there, as well as my creative and artistic friends since the same lessons apply to all of us.  Happy writing!

Whenever I read something I wrote a few years ago, I feel horrified and embarrassed.  I am painfully aware of each glaring mistake and flaw, but being able to see those things is actually a gift - proof of how much I am learning and growing as a writer. 

I remember very clearly the day I learned a fabulous and yet very simple secret - to write forward, and write that way with wild abandon.  What this means is to stop analyzing every word.  Let yourself be free.  I’d been shackled before, spending so much time on the first sentence of the first page of the first chapter that I never got anywhere.  When I finally let myself go, I wrote three chapters in one day.  Most of it was garbage, definitely, and ended up being cut out of my final edit, but I needed to write that garbage first in order to figure out where my story really started.  Editing is the time you fix mistakes, but I had been editing the whole time I was writing.  Once I stopped doing that, it was so much easier, and more enjoyable.  I was able to focus on the story, and not minor details.

Making mistakes is part of the process.  Editing is the time you address those mistakes.  Embrace imperfection as part of being a writer, and a human being.  Save all of those things you have written in the past, not in order to torture yourself, but so you can realize exactly how far you have come. 

I advise all of my writer friends out there to try this simple exercise.  Set your timer for five minutes.  Light a candle, if you’d like (it’s not mandatory, but it can help!), and start writing.  Don’t try to have a direction.  Don’t overthink it or worry about making mistakes.  Just give yourself five minutes to go where the muse leads you.  You might be very pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Survivor - First place winner in Writers' Journal.

I wrote this when we were in the middle of the worst snow storm we'd had in years, labeled 'Snowarmageddon' by the news media.  It ended up winning the 'Write To Win' contest in the Sept/Oct 2010 edition of Writers' Journal Magazine.  Since Writers' Journal just folded up, I thought I'd share this with you here. This was the first story I ever had published, and caused a great deal of screaming and dancing around the kitchen at my house.

            The lights went out and Amy held her breath, waiting for the emergency generator to work.  It started, with a shudder and a horrific crunching noise, but at least it continued to function. 

Amy closed her eyes, feeling the fear in her chest ease when she heard the comforting sound of the humming engine.  She couldn’t bear the thought of being left cold and alone in the dark.

            She pulled her ragged wool cardigan tightly across her body and walked over to the window to take a peek outside, waiting for the sun to come up.  She continued to stare out of the window, long after it rose into the sky, although she didn’t know why she bothered.  There was nothing to see outside except the same white expanse she’d seen every day for the last five lonely months.

Amy opened the door to grab some wood from the pile for her fire, her body flinching from the chill of the icy wind.  She had enough wood to last a few more weeks, and then she’d have to make the dangerous trip into the forest to chop some more.  She dreaded it, but not as much as she dreaded living without the generator.  If she rationed carefully, she’d have enough fuel for another month, but she wasn’t sure what she’d do after that.  She hadn’t planned on being stranded for such a long time.  Spring should have arrived almost two months ago.

            She blinked in surprise when she saw a figure moving towards her house, struggling in the waist deep snow.  Amy squinted against the harsh sunlight reflecting off of the white landscape, trying to make out if the approaching form were human or animal, friend or foe, but she could see very little at this distance.  She stumbled back into her warm little house and reached for her heavy coat.  She quickly slipped on her snowshoes before grabbing her gun, a nervous sense of excitement building inside of her.  If it were a person, it would be the first human being she’d seen in months.  If it were an animal, she’d shoot it and have food for a week.  And if it were one of the strange ones, the creatures that were no longer human, but yet not completely animal, she’d kill it without remorse and leave it’s carcass for the hungry bears to find.

            She waited on her front porch, her gun ready, as it came closer.  It looked human, bundled under layers of heavy clothing, but she wasn’t taking any chances. 

            “Who are you?” she shouted, and her voice echoed oddly in the quiet wilderness.

            The figure stopped moving, and looked directly at Amy.  She could see a dark beard covering the skin exposed beneath protective ski goggles.  It was a man.  “My name is Ben,” he said, he voice sounding scratchy and weak.  “I saw the smoke from your fire.  Can I come in and warm up?” he asked.

Amy paused for a moment.  He seemed human enough, but she knew she was taking a great risk.  He could steal her food, hurt her, or take her fuel.  She weighed her options quickly.  Loneliness won out over caution, but she wasn’t stupid.  She kept her gun clenched tightly in her hands as she waved him into her house.

Ben was so tall he had to bend over to enter the cabin.  Amy walked in behind him, shutting the door.  Ben looked around as he removed layer after layer of clothing, starting with the heavy tinted ski goggles.  When he was down to a warm sweater and jeans, he turned to face Amy.

“Are you all alone up here?” he asked incredulously.  Amy didn’t say anything.  She just tightened her grip on her gun and stared coldly into his bright blue eyes.  He shook his head.  “I’m sorry.  You don’t have to answer that.  I was just surprised.  I haven’t seen another person in months, not even in Richmond.”

Amy blinked in shock.  “There aren’t any people in Richmond?” she asked.  Richmond was nearly fifty miles away, the closest town.  She’d thought about going there to look for help and supplies.

Ben held out his reddened hands to the fire, a sad expression on his face.  “Richmond was a ghost town,” he said.  “Unless you count the crazy ones.”  He let out a dry chuckle that was more like a sob.  “I always thought that having cabin fever just meant you were bored.  I never knew it could be an actual sickness; that being trapped in the ice and snow could make a person crazy.”  He gave Amy a long assessing look, his eyes lingering on the gun she still held in her hands.  “What is your name?” he asked softly.

“Amy,” she said.

“I’m not going to hurt you, Amy,” he said, his voice gentle.  She slowly lowered the gun, putting the safety on before she set it aside.  “How long have you been here?” he asked, turning back to the fire and sitting down.

Amy took off her coat and brushed the hair out of her eyes.  It had grown, and the light brown strands nearly reached the middle of her back.   

“I’ve been here since before Christmas,” she said.  “I was on break from university and my parents and brother were going to meet me here.  They didn’t make it.” 

Ben nodded in understanding.  “The storm of the century,” he murmured.  “Well, that is what they called it until they figured out we’d just entered into another ice age.” 

Amy sat down in her rocking chair, only a few feet away from him, and leaned forward.  “Can you tell me what is going on?” she asked, hearing the desperation in her own voice.  “I don’t have a television here.”

Ben ran a hand through his hair and Amy was surprised to realize he wasn’t much older than she was.  She hadn’t noticed it because of the shaggy beard and the haggard look on his face.  As she waited for him to speak, she poured some hot water into a cup and made him some of her precious tea.  The coffee had run out long ago.  He reached for the cup gratefully and took a long sip.

“There is no television anymore,” he said.  “It’s a mess out there.  Roads are impassable.  People are starving.  The government is in ruins.  Half the people are crazy from cabin fever.  Scientists say it’s an actual illness, a bacterial infection of the brain, but I don’t know.  Have you seen any people like that around here?” he asked.

“Once,” she said.  “A man came here.  He acted like an animal.  He couldn’t speak.  He was filthy and sick.  He died right outside my door.”  She didn’t bother explaining that a bullet from her gun had been what had killed him.

Ben glanced at Amy.  “How on earth did you manage to make it on your own this long?” he asked.

“My dad taught survival training to soldiers,” she said.  “He made sure my brother and I could take care of ourselves.”

Ben nodded and took another sip of tea.  “He taught you well.  I grew up in Alaska, so this is nothing new for me,” he said, with a small smile.  “Snow, snow and more snow.  I moved south thinking I was getting away from it.  No such luck.”

“What will you do now?” asked Amy, almost afraid to hear the answer.

Ben sighed.  “I don’t know.  I think the best option is to keep heading south.  I’ve heard there are some settlements along the Mexican border.  Do you want to come with me?” he asked.  “I’m so tired of being alone,” he said, his voice nearly a whisper.

The air in the cabin felt still as he waited for her response.  Amy looked up at him in surprise, but his eyes were on the fire.  “But I’m safe here,” she said. 

“For how long?” he asked.  “You are going to need more supplies eventually.  How are you going to get them on your own?”

Amy winced at the thought of facing the wilderness and the beasts alone.  She was tired of facing everything alone, but she didn’t know if she could trust this stranger.  “The first rule of survival is to find shelter and stay in one place until someone can rescue you,” she said, repeating the words her father had taught her long ago.

“But what if there is no one left to rescue you?” he asked.  He touched her arm and Amy jumped.  She had completely forgotten how good human contact felt.  “Surviving isn’t living,” he said.

Amy knew then what she had to do.  “I’m tired of surviving.  I ready to start living again,” she said, and Ben gave her a slow smile that made her feel warm for the first time in months.